Worker of My WorldPosted: September 5, 2015
Labor Day is a fitting time to remember my grandfather, Daniel – Deszoe – Lang, born in Bodony, Hungary, in 1895. Dan was one of nine children. His mother, Fannie, died when he was 10, and his father – a Torah scholar – soon remarried a woman detested by her stepchildren. The feelings were evidently mutual – all the children were dispersed from home. At the age of 12, Deszoe was apprenticed to a locksmith. Four years later, he set out on his own from Debreczen, crossing Austria and Germany on foot. By 18, he had become a fervid socialist. Embroiled in labor agitation, he was soon persona non grata in Germany. He left for America in 1913, fluent in German, Yiddish and Hungarian, but speaking no English. He settled in Manhattan, got a job as a machinist in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and became a Wobbly – a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, a labor movement founded in a cross of anarchism and socialism. http://depts.washington.edu/iww/ ; www.iww.org In 1917, Dan married a Russian immigrant who had somehow managed to attend and graduate from Hunter College at the age of 19. They communicated in German, the only language they had in common.
Dan prized manual labor. He was proud of his educated wife, children and grandchildren, but critical and somewhat disdainful of their inability to make a living with their hands. His wife, a teacher, in return disdained his lack of formal education. They were an odd, but devoted couple. In time, they bought a few acres of land in what would one day become an affluent New York suburb but, in their time, were sandwiched between a pig farm and an abandoned orchard. My grandmother was not a fan of the farm, but he loved it, ultimately persuading her to retire there where he grew vegetables and bartered for day old bread from the local bakery. In the fall, we would pick apples from the adjacent orchard. As my six year old cousin’s efforts flagged one afternoon, my grandfather chided her, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. Do you know what that means?” She thought, then answered, “If you don’t pick apples, you don’t eat apples.” She was rewarded with a shoulder carry.
My grandfather revered Eric Hoffer, http://www.amazon.com/Eric-Hoffer/e/B000APSDOU, Emma Goldman http://jwa.org/womenofvalor/goldman; http://www.amazon.com/Love-Anarchy-Emma-Goldman-Biography/dp/0813515130 and, at one time, Marx and Lenin. (It was not until my father was in his 80’s that I thought to ask him why he was nicknamed “Lenny.”) Along with some Hungarian songs, he taught me a ballad about Joe Hill who lives on wherever “workers strike and organize.” Grandfather was a card-carrying member of the ACLU and gave me a membership as a grade school graduation gift. He was not a religious man, but believed God was manifested in the natural world. His philosophy ran to anarchism – it certainly ran against capitalism. He was not thrilled with my choice of a career in the law. His gift to me was a print of a picture of two litigants pulling the ears and tail of a cow, while a lawyer sat milking it. But his influence on me was nevertheless profound, as my practice came to focus on civil rights, and I continue to share his antipathy for guns, a distaste of wine and an aversion to waste. Lately I’ve developed a fascination for Emma Goldman.
There are two stories I love best about my grandfather. The first originates in his journeyman days. Crossing Austria, he found himself outside a convent. It was raining. Hungry and wet, he knocked on the door and was invited into the kitchen for a meal. Gratefully, he sat down but was dismayed when he was given a bowl of lentils, the one food he disliked intensely. When the nun who served him left the room, he undertook an act of desperation: he poured the lentils into an umbrella standing conveniently in a corner. He promptly said his goodbyes and left. Decades later, he roared laughing as he imagined the unfortunate soul who later picked up the umbrella and got a shower of lentils.
The second story is more sobering. It takes place in a movie theatre in New York in the 1930’s. A newsreel was showing Hitler, recently risen to power, and audience members cheered. Dan rose to his feet, shaking his fist, and thundered, “You damn fools. Don’t you know he is out to destroy the world?” The audience fell silent. Soon after that, he engineered the safe escape from Austria of all his brothers and sisters.
I will always be in awe of my grandfather. That he crossed the ocean to this country alone as a teenager, without a word of English, still astounds me. Was he even aware what courage that trip took? That he remained true to his beliefs and values throughout his life, speaking truth as he saw it and eschewing any luxuries, reminds me that, in Eric Hoffer’s words, “The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.” For all of this, Deszoe, Grandfather, I remember you today.